Searching for Common Ground at the ORFC and the OFC

I will be spending the next couple of days at the 10th Oxford Real Farming Conference and the 73rd Oxford Farming Conference and my mission is simple, but also overwhelmingly complex: to search for common ground between the two. How are these two conferences similar and how are they still fundamentally different? Is there a chance that in a few years’ time they will come together under a single banner?

Traditionally the Oxford Farming Conference has been seen as the more ‘establishment’ conference, whereas the Oxford Real is more disruptive with a focus on agroecological farming methods. The ORFC marks its tenth anniversary this year, and it certainly seems to be coming of age. It has grown significantly in recent years and this year will welcome 1000 delegates to Oxford Town Hall. The OFC, in the words of Tom Allen-Stevens, the 2019 Chairman, remains ‘a unique experience in the UK agri-food calendar’, with ‘leaders, innovators and progressive minds, from all aspects of farming and the food supply chain, coming together…in the pursuit of positive change’.

Let’s pause for a minute on that word: change. It is something that everyone in the food and farming sector seems to be focused on, including delegates from both of these conferences, as they have been for the last few years. After all, it is only in times of change that we truly challenge perspectives and move things forward. Whether delegates from each conference agree on the form that this change should take is a different matter. Nevertheless the status quo seems to not be an option in the next few years with numerous disruptive factors influencing the scene, not least the future relationship the UK will have with member states of the European Union.

My general plan for the next couple of days is to spend the mornings at the OFC then run up the road and join the Oxford Real Farming Conference in the afternoon. The Secretary of State, Michael Gove will be addressing both conferences again this year (last year was the first time that he, or any Secretary of State for Defra for that matter, spoke at the ORFC) and I will be particularly interested in both the words he uses in his own address and the questions that he is asked at both the OFC and the ORFC.

Other sessions that I am particularly interested in (but can’t always attend due to not being able to be in two places at once!):

Oxford Farming

  • Julie Borlaug, VP for Communications at Inari Agriculture and granddaughter of agricultural innovator Norman Borlaug, will be speaking about the communications challenge in terms of both innovation and technology.
  • ‘The World Beyond Brexit’ – George Eustice and Barry Gardiner will begin the focus on Brexit before Sir Lockwood Smith, who is the ex-New Zealand Trade Minister; Claire Urry, the Executive Director of China-Britain Business Council and Mark Clark, the Managing Director of Grampian Growers Ltd will offer their perspectives.
  • More Brexit chat from Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman of Barclays and Caroline Lucas, former leader of the Green Party.

Oxford Real Farming

  • The launch of the UK Rewilding Network
  • Exploring the UK Agriculture Bill
  • A session looking at the reasons that small abbatoirs in the UK are closing and potential solutions to save them.
  • Brexit ‘State of Play’ for Food and farming, with Kerry McCarthy MP, Kath Dalmeny and Vicki Hird (from Sustain).
  • Ley of the Land: Integrating Leys into Cropping Systems (I’m looking to do this on my family’s farm in Essex starting in the autumn so this will be a ‘not to miss’ for me.
  • Growers Question Time: Focus on Weeds – Andy Dibben, Pete Richardson, Nathan Richards and Rebecca Stevenson, chaired by Ben Raskin.

The list for both of these would be much longer. As always the problem is not the content itself but the breadth of content.

Am I expecting to find much common ground? At this stage I’m going to have to give a politician’s answer and sit on the fence. I expect that the answer will be yes and no. Whilst the OFC has moved closer towards ‘sustainable conversations’ in recent years many delegates at the ORFC wouldn’t recognise the general model of the future presented at the OFC. Similarly, some of the ideas presented at the ORFC still come across as ‘a bit on the alternative side’ (quoting somebody I spoke to last night). Nonetheless

We will see. Personally, I remain hopeful that in a few years time there won’t necessarily be a single conference but far more collaboration in terms of fringe events, and especially social events, bringing ideas from both conferences together. Wide ranging views are necessary to challenge our views to take back to our food and farming businesses. Without radical challenges, this questioning is unlikely to be as healthy, impactful or successful.

 

The picture was taken at the joint Innovative Farmers cider event which brought together delegates of both the OFC and the ORFC.

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